By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.

Many years ago, one rainy afternoon in my school library, I came across a copy of Down and out in Paris in London. I had never heard of George Orwell, but I found his descriptions of life on the road, living on the streets, in filthy common lodging houses and the casual wards of workhouses (“the Spike”) absolutely captivating.

When I moved to London in the late seventies I naively imagined that Orwell’s world had disappeared but was shocked to see dozens of homeless men (and a few women) sleeping under the Embankment railway bridge.

Recently, I re-read “Down and Out”. Orwell quotes a London County Council census from the night of 13 February 1931 which found 60 men and 18 women sleeping on the capital’s streets. London’s population at that time was about 8.5 million.

90 years later, with London’s population approaching 10 million, the latest figures show 1,136 people sleeping rough on a typical night – a fourteen-fold increase. The ratio would be broadly similar for any major UK city. Objectively, rough sleeping is a lot worse now than in Orwell’s time.

Anyone who has visited any major city in the UK in recent years cannot fail to have noticed the rising numbers of people sleeping rough. It seems that recent governments have been willing to tolerate this stain on our society, although there have been some modest attempts to address it in recent years.

The Theresa May Government of 2017 pledged to “halve rough sleeping over the course of the parliament and eliminate it altogether by 2027”. It supported Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Act of 2017, which placed new duties on local authorities in England to help the homeless. A Rough Sleeping strategy was published in August 2018, and the 2019 Conservative Manifesto pledged to end “the blight of
rough sleeping by the end of the next Parliament”.

The 2020 Budget announced an increase in funds to address rough sleeping. All of this did lead to a small fall in rough sleepers but the big picture was that 1,768 were recorded in 2010 in England – a figure that had risen to 4,266 by 2019, an increase of 140%.

Of course, all of that changed in March as Covid-19 swept across the country. Suddenly, rough sleepers were deemed to be vulnerable and they were found rooms in hotels and other forms of temporary accommodation. It was estimated that over 90% were taken inside “where they can remain safe and able to protect themselves during the crisis”, although according to this report from Manchester, some have since
returned to the streets.

Now Dame Louise Casey has been appointed to head a task force to end rough sleeping altogether. The government has announced a £433m package with 3,300 “units” to be provided in the next 12 months out of a total of 6,000.

Revenue support will also be increased by 37% to fund staff offering specialist support with mental health, substance abuse, and other issues. The goal is “to protect rough sleepers from the virus, give them the chance to self-isolate, and, ultimately therefore, to do the best we can to save their lives”.

I wonder why it has taken this virus to prompt such effective and decisive action? As of the 2 June, less than half of 1% of the UK population had tested positive for Covid19 (277,985 people), and of those 14% had sadly died. The argument runs that rough sleepers are more at risk from the virus due to their lifestyle and the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

But rough sleepers have for decades been 100% susceptible to the health dangers of living on the streets, and yet little was done. They are over nine times more likely to commit suicide than the general population and they die at the average age of 47 for men and 43 for women, compared to 80 years for males and 83 years for females among the wider population.

So, why Covid-19 and why now? Why is a virus that targets people with underlying health conditions and obesity suddenly such a danger to rough sleepers when they have been at risk from far worse for so long?

Is it as much about protecting us from rough sleepers as protecting rough sleepers from the virus? After all, tropes about vagrants spreading disease are as old as the tropes about anti-Semitism. Stories like this from New York about the fears of homeless people spreading the virus bring the story up to date.

Or am I being too cynical? Whatever you think, the government’s plans are to be highly commended. Let us hope that the policy is sound and that it has a positive impact, and let us hope also that the government now devotes as much energy and funds to building genuinely affordable homes.